By David J. Cohen
It’s time for the NBA playoffs. This year is especially good, with storylines all over the place. I can’t remember a playoff year in the NBA with so much intrigue in the opening round.
Here’s how the Eastern Conference should play out.(8) Orlando Magic v. (1) Detroit Pistons
This series is a warm-up for the Pistons. They are 4-0 against the Magic this year, shooting almost 49% from the field and over 41% from behind the arc. They have won the rebounding battle and have shot 81% from the line. The Magic have shot it well from the field at 47% in these games, but haven’t shot well from behind the arc. They are also shooting 66% from the line, and they are not a good free-throw shooting team as it is.
The Pistons have won by an average of 9 points per game in these games. There’s no reason it shouldn’t continue. Pistons sweep the Magic.
(5) Chicago Bulls v. (4) Miami Heat
The Bulls blew a chance at the division a few nights back and lost what would’ve been an easy road to the Eastern Conference Finals. Overall, the Bulls have played well in the last month and a half, with a 16-6 record since March 1st. They picked up Ben Wallace for this exact situation. They need him to battle Shaq. Kirk Hinrich is a solid player at the point. Luol Deng has emerged as the stabilizing force on the team. Ben Gordon is still the man in the clutch. Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni are two of the best bench players in the league. The other key player on this team is rookie Tyrus Thomas, who has become a force since the all-star break with his energy and athleticism on the defensive end.
The Heat are looking to repeat. They have been battered by injuries all year. Their entire 12 man roster has been healthy for 1 game all year. Now their best player, Dwayne Wade, is trying to play with a shoulder injury that needs surgery. They were out of the playoff picture when Wade went out but reinvented themselves as a pure half-court team. Shaq proved he can still be the man as he carried them back into the playoffs. Udonis Haslem does all the little things. Jason Kapono has been lethal from behind the arc and is dangerous in the Heat offense. James Posey can make clutch shots. Antoine Walker is a good asset off the bench with great post up ability, who likes to shoot jumpers a little too much. Alonzo Mourning is by far the best backup center in the league and is the best defensive presence at center in the entire league. Eddie Jones returns to the team and gives them a smart defender off the bench who can knock down 3’s.
This series will be a slugfest. This could be the best match-up the Heat could’ve drawn in the opening round for the simple fact that they won’t be facing a team that will force a fast pace. Both teams like to battle in a half-court game. The Bulls have a lot of players who can score, but rely too much on jump shots. They tend to go on at least one deep scoring drought per game. It’s during these periods the Heat will take the series. They can be more consistent. If Wade can get them 15 and game and Shaq can get them 15-20 and stay in the game, the Heat should be fine. If Shaq dominates then Kapono can flourish from 3. Posey can knock down shots for them. Also, if they can get Walker to post up inside he could be the pivotal player in the series. If he and Shaq are in at the same time and Walker is inside he will have good looks all series long. The Heat are better in the half-court than the Bulls and that will make the difference.
It’s a great series, but the Heat win it in 6.
(6) New Jersey Nets v. (3) Toronto Raptors
The Nets are led by the big 3 in Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Vince Carter. Kidd is a great court leader and handles a team as well as anyone in basketball. He is also the best rebounding point guard in the league. Richard Jefferson isn’t flashy but gets the job done. Vince Carter has stepped his game up this year and has been on a tear as of late, averaging over 32 a game in his last 10 coming into the playoffs. The loss of Nenad Kristic early in the year should have been a fatal blow to the team but they have found their stabilizer in the middle in Mikki Moore. Bostjan Nachbar has been another surprise off the bench, giving them solid production. He can shoot from anywhere on the floor and has learned how to posterize people in the last month. Josh Boone has finally returned from injury and has been pretty productive in limited time.
The Raptors are the most surprising team in the east this year. T.J. Ford is an excellent point guard who can also score. Anthony Parker is a reliable scorer. Chris Bosh is the most underrated player in all of basketball and can do just about anything. Jose Calderon has played well whenever he has seen the floor. Morris Peterson can still put in points when needed.
This is an interesting series. Vince Carter returns to Toronto. You have a team in the Nets whose main guys have a lot of playoff experience against what could be the most inexperienced playoff team in NBA history. No one on the Raptors has real playoff experience, and their head coach has never coached a playoff game. There are interesting match-ups all over the place. Ford is faster than Kidd but Kidd is a savvy defender. The Raptors have no one who can truly guard Carter or Jefferson. The Nets have no one to guard Chris Bosh. When the Nets have been a dangerous team they have been the big 4 with someone in the middle giving them production to allow the other 3 to play their games without having to do everything. Mikki Moore has evolved into that guy, making plays on both ends of the floor and getting 15 in many games this year when no one pays attention to him. Josh Boone has filled this role nicely when he has seen time as well. These two are the key in this series. If they play well, the Nets will move on. The lack of experience will also hurt the Raptors. It’s possible they may be happy with making the playoffs. The Nets are looking to make a big run and have a lot riding on this series as a franchise.
The Nets have the edge and win in 6.
(7) Washington Wizards v. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
This would’ve been a great rematch of last year’s thrilling series, but Arenas is gone and the Wizards are finished without him. They’ll steal a game but this series won’t be much fun to watch. Cavs in 5.
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
(5) Miami Heat v. (1) Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are improved from last year simply because they are a team. The acquisition of Chris Webber is the crucial piece in the lineup and has reenergized the team like Rasheed Wallace did when he came to Detroit. Tayshaun Prince is a great defender who continues to improve on offense. Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups round out the starting lineup and are big time players on both ends of the floor. Antonio McDyess plays well off the bench and gives them more toughness in the middle. Carlos Delfino has stepped up this year and Jason Maxiell has been a menace whenever he sees the floor.
Just about everyone considers this the finals in the east, in the same way as Dallas and San Antonio was last year out west. Detroit has a better starting lineup but is at a big disadvantage off the bench. Chris Webber should struggle this series on the boards and scoring, especially when Alonzo Mourning is on him. On the flip side, Mr. Big Shot and Rip have a huge edge on the Heat backcourt. Jason Williams will get torched by either of them. Wade’s shoulder injury could be detrimental in this series, especially if he has to guard Rip, who will be running around screens all series long. Wade will take a ton of abuse on that shoulder on the defensive end. Rasheed Wallace and Udonis Haslem should be a good match-up. Wallace will have to knock down long-range shots to win that battle.
The Heat have advantages off the bench. Along with Mourning, Kapono and Jones could keep them in the series if they can hit 3’s. And Antoine Walker could be a valuable asset to the Heat if he goes inside. Detroit has McDyess, but he will likely be in severe foul trouble for most of the series as he bodies up against Shaq.
Shaq is the key to this series. He will have to be the Shaq of old for the Heat to advance. He must dictate the tempo and control the game by pounding the Pistons inside. The Pistons are a good enough team to take care of the boards whenever Shaq misses. The only thing that worries me about the Pistons in this series is their coach. Flip Saunders has never won a big playoff series and it seems his teams fold come playoff time. The Pistons were supposed to cruise to the finals last year but should have been beaten by Cleveland. This should be his big win to get him over the hump. If Detroit folds in this series Flip needs to be replaced.
It’s a great series, but the Pistons will win in 6.
(6) New Jersey Nets v. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are a mystery. They are likely the least flattering 50 win team of all-time. They just don’t seem to fit the record. The team revolves around the play of King James and whether he makes the big free-throws and shots in the final minutes. Larry Hughes is still trying to find his offense. Drew Gooden is a great rebounder who can provide some offensive relief. Zydrunas Ilgauskas can provide good scoring and passing in the post, but tends to be overlooked by his own team. Sasha Pavlovic has taken his game to another level and will have to produce big scoring games for the Cavs. Anderson Varejao brings energy and rebounding off the bench.
This series for the Nets is exactly like the last in that the play of Mikki Moore and Josh Boone will go a long way in deciding who wins. Kidd has a huge edge at the point in this series and could control the tempo of this series. Either Carter or Jefferson will always have an edge on offense, as LeBron will have to guard one of them. If they can get James into foul trouble in a couple of games in the series it could spell big trouble for the Cavs. Moore’s athleticism and quickness will trouble Ilgauskas. Nachbar could also have a big series when he gets into the game.
The Cavs will need LeBron to bring his top game every night in this series to win it. Someone else will have to step up. They don’t go to Ilgauskas enough for him to help them. Gooden will kill the glass in this series but won’t score a ton of points. Hughes seems lost in the Cavs offense. Pavlovic will have to step up and get the Cavs 15 or more a night to keep them in the series. That’s not too encouraging.
The Nets will have a couple of off-nights on offense against a Cavs team that can play great defense at times. However, they should prevail in the very end. They win it in 7.
Eastern Conference Finals
(6) New Jersey Nets v. (1) Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are too deep for the Nets. They have more great players and can defend Carter and Jefferson. Wallace, Webber, and McDyess will wreak havoc on the Nets inside and from mid-range. Rip should get free and have many open shots. It’s a short series. Pistons in 5.
The Pistons win the East. Now for the powder keg out west.
(8) Golden State Warriors v. (1) Dallas Mavericks
The Warriors had a long grace period after taking in most of the Pacers talent but have figured it out in the last month and a half. Don Nelson has finally gotten the team to play his style and it is paying off. They are the most dangerous 8 seed to enter the playoffs in a long time. Baron Davis has played excellent basketball as of late, both as a scorer and as a setup man. Jason Richardson is an explosive player who finally has some help around him. Stephen Jackson can put up 20 at any time. Al Harrington is a great post player who has unlimited range for a big man. Andris Biedrins is a good rebounder who can play solid defense. Mickael Pietrus has great athleticism and can play well in stints at both ends of the floor. Monta Ellis had a breakout year and can easily put 20 against anyone.
The Mavs have a great team and have been the best team in the league since the 2nd week of the season. Dirk Nowitzki has become tougher and cannot be guarded one-on-one. Josh Howard can do it all on both ends of the floor. Jason Terry is a lethal shooter who can slash effectively. Jerry Stackhouse is a dependable scorer off the bench and is the most important bench player in the playoffs. Devin Harris can run the point and set people up. Erick Dampier has played better this year and has been solid on the boards. DeSagana Diop is a great defensive center who can affect the paint with his length and size. Greg Buckner is a solid defensive option who can come off the bench. Kevin Willis is 44, which is still young enough to come in and foul people.
This series, for an 8-1 series, is unprecedented. It’s the first time the 8 seed has gone undefeated against the 1 during the regular season. Don Nelson returns to the Mavs in an attempt to stick it to Mark Cuban. He made Avery Johnson his pupil and groomed him into the Dallas job. He coached the key players on the Mavs for several years and surely knows weaknesses and tendencies about them that no other coach other than Avery knows. The Warriors have more than enough firepower to contend in this series. They have their own match-up advantages. Baron Davis should be a little too much for Devin Harris. Jason Richardson is too skilled for Jason Terry to guard. Biedrins should be able to give Dampier a run for his money. And Harrington is the perfect player to go at Nowitzki with his range and versatility. He may get Dirk in foul trouble all series, and the Mavs really don’t have anyone who can truly guard him except Josh Howard. If Howard guards Harrington, Jackson has a big mismatch.
The Mavs will win the battle of execution. They pay much more attention to detail. Nowitzki needs to make shots from the perimeter. Dampier and Diop need to clean up the boards. Terry can’t disappear in this series. Stackhouse will need to put up double-digit games every night.
This will be a great series. In the 3 games so far, the Warriors have shot well in every game, while the Mavs have struggled from the field. Golden State has been able to set the pace in these games. However, the Mavs have dominated the boards and should continue to do so. The key match-up in the series other than Dirk against Harrington will be Devin Harris against Monta Ellis. Harris is the only one with the quickness to stay with Ellis, and if Ellis steps up his game in this series it could be like what Kevin Martin did for the Kings last year against the Spurs when a Kings team that was severely outmatched won 2 games in their opening round series against the Spurs. The Warriors are close to the Mavs as far as players, talent, and match-ups are concerned. If Ellis and Harrington get big games, the Warriors will have a chance to pull off a huge upset.
In the end, what holds the Warriors back is time. They are currently coming together but aren’t at their full potential yet. If they figure everything out in this series, Nelly could get the ultimate revenge. However, I think this team is a year away. The Mavs get a run for their money, but hold on in 7.
(5) Houston Rockets v. (4) Utah Jazz
The Rockets are finally healthy. Tracy McGrady is one of the top players in the league and has gotten the help he needs this year. Yao Ming has played well since coming back from injury and the Rockets are starting to find a good balance between Yao and McGrady. Shane Battier is a reliable 3 point threat who is one of the best on ball defenders in the game. Juwan Howard continues to be a good rebounder. Luther Head is a dependable scorer off the bench. Chuck Hayes has played well this year and provides good rebounding skills and a surprising offensive threat. Dikembe Mutombo continues to be a defensive presence despite his age and still has lethal elbows.
The Jazz started the year well but are falling apart before the playoffs. They don’t have a lot of depth and it seems the team is tiring out as the season closes. Deron Williams is a great point guard already and may become the best in the league in due time. Carlos Boozer is having a breakout year and has become an all-around scorer and rebounder. Mehmet Okur is a talented center who has unlimited range. He is the go-to guy in the clutch. Andrei Kirilenko is counted on to be a star on this team but has underachieved by a mile this year. Paul Millsap is an outstanding rebounder and good defender off the bench. Derek Fisher brings playoff experience but has had a terrible year shooting the ball.
Many people anticipate a great series here. It will fall short of expectations. The Rockets have too much depth and have the 2 best players on the floor starting as it is. Boozer will have a huge series and Williams will get his points and assists but it won’t be enough. McGrady and Ming will get theirs as well, and the supporting cast for the Rockets will overpower the Jazz. Rockets in 6.
(6) Denver Nuggets v. (3) San Antonio Spurs
The Nuggets are the hottest team in the league right now, winning 10 of their last 11. The Carmelo/A.I. experiment is finally working out, and the Nuggets propelled themselves from 9th to 6th in the west. In Iverson and Carmelo the Nuggets have the highest scoring tandem in the league. Marcus Camby is one of the league’s best defenders, and is the only big man in the NBA averaging double-digit points and rebounds while averaging over 3 blocks and assists a game. Nene is a talented scorer inside and a big body. JR Smith can explode on offense on any given night. The Nuggets other huge acquisition this year, who comes off the bench but is an important piece for them, is Steve Blake, who at the point is able to make everything work while making big shots of his own.
The Spurs, are well, the Spurs. Tim Duncan isn’t flattering, but is one of the greatest players of our generation (just don’t say that to Joe Crawford). Manu Ginobili is a talented scorer but has been inconsistent at times this year. Tony Parker is a great player at the point at both ends of the floor. Bruce Bowen is still a good defender but has lost a step. Michael Finley has been a huge addition for them and has played great for them this year. Brent Barry gives the Spurs a dependable shooter. Robert Horry hasn’t had a great year, but if he’s open with 3 seconds left in the playoffs, the game’s over.
The Nuggets are red-hot, and with Iverson and Carmelo on their game they can contend against anyone. Camby is a great defender and will certainly disrupt Tim Duncan. Nene could be a huge factor in this series as Duncan will likely not guard him for fear of foul trouble. The Spurs won’t be able to guard Carmelo and Iverson at the same time. One of them will always have a mismatch.
The Spurs don’t have a lot of favorable match-ups but execute extremely well. For the season they are allowing just 90 points a game, which is outstanding. They win by over 8 points a game, which is tops in the league. They are sound in every facet of the game. Denver isn’t a great defensive team and can go ice cold from time to time. The Spurs defense sets them apart in this series.
The Spurs will be pushed in this series but survive in 6.
(7) Los Angeles Lakers v. (2) Phoenix Suns
Kobe Bryant is sick. His season since the all-star break has been phenomenal. He is putting up 50 every other game on average at this point, and that’s just crazy. He is the greatest scorer since Michael Jordan. No one in the game today, and maybe ever, regularly makes more tough contested shots then Kobe. He makes shots regularly that most in the league can’t make at all. He is out of this world. The problem is there isn’t much of a team to go with him, and Phil Jackson told Kobe to try to win games by himself to save their season. Smush Parker is having a nice year and is turning into a solid defender. Lamar Odom has all the talent in the world but doesn’t seem to know how to play with Kobe when Kobe is on fire. He seems to only reach his potential when Kobe is hurt. Luke Walton is a nice player who can get buckets for them but doesn’t bring it every night. Andrew Bynum is a talented young center but is still raw and makes rookie mistakes. Brian Cook is a great shooter from the outside but shows up once a month. Ronny Turiaf is a high energy guy who gets the little things done. Maurice Evans should get more playing time, as he comes in and just produces on both ends of the floor.
The Suns are back and improved from a year ago. Steve Nash is the best point guard in the league and is a magician in traffic. Boris Diaw is a versatile player who can do anything asked of him in the Suns offense. Shawn Marion is a great defender who is a productive scorer and savvy rebounder. Amare Stoudamire is a great offensive player who has taken this team to another level. He is not a jump shooter and is a reliable scorer. He presents a tough match-up for every team in the league. Leandrinho Barbosa has become a great scorer and has a lethal jumper and would be a starter on just about any other team in the league. Kurt Thomas is a productive player who gives the Suns good defense and rebounding and a dependable 10 ft jumper.
This series is reminiscent of last year’s series in that the Suns, on paper, should slaughter the Lakers. However, last year the Lakers let the series slip away from them. The team made big plays early in the series but fell apart when the series was on the line. Kobe gave up by the 4th quarter in game 7. Kobe will renew his rivalry with Raja Bell, who has always given Kobe some trouble. Kobe will still hit 50 at least twice during the series.
For the Lakers to have a chance they will have to transform back into the team that started the season. There’s no evidence to suggest this will happen, but the Zen master at the bench has done instant transformations of teams in the past. As for the match-ups, the Lakers can’t stop Stoudamire, Diaw, or Barbosa. Kobe will get his, but not every game. Since Kobe has gone on this tear of his the Lakers have won some games but have always been in close games against some of the bottom-feeders of the league.
The Suns are 3-1 against the Lakers this year and will have more success in this series. Kobe gets a game, but that’s it. Suns in 5.
Western Conference Semi-Finals
(5) Houston Rockets v. (1) Dallas Mavericks
Yao Ming will make or break this series. If he can get 20+ against Dampier and Diop the Rockets can make this a series. McGrady will get his points, but the supporting cast is completely outmatched in this series. Josh Howard will have a field day. Jason Terry should also have a good series. Stackhouse could average 15 in this series. They have defensive players to shut down the rest of the Rockets and have too many options on offense to play in a half-court game. The Rockets just don’t match-up very well in this series. They’ll be lucky to win 2 games, despite being a solid road team.
The Mavs win in 5.
(3) San Antonio Spurs v. (2) Phoenix Suns
The monster series. Two different styles clash in an epic battle. The key player in this series is Amare Stoudamire, who has played well over his career against Tim Duncan. Duncan won’t play against Stoudamire or he’ll be on the bench all series. The Spurs other big men will get destroyed by Stoudamire, which should open things up for everyone else. Nash will be able to set up players but won’t be much of a scoring factor. Marion will need to step up on the boards to give the Suns enough 2nd chance points. Diaw and Barbosa will also be match-up problems for the Spurs.
The Spurs have some advantages of their own. Duncan won’t be stopped in this series. Ginobili could thrive in this series and he and Parker should both get easy baskets in the paint. Finley could average double-digit points off the bench. The defensive prowess of the Spurs will be put up to the ultimate test. They have gotten the better of Phoenix so far this year. In 3 games the Suns are averaging only 98 a game, which is awful for them. The Spurs have dictated the tempo and knocked down open shots.
It’s a tough test of wills and strategy, but the Spurs defense could be too much for the Suns to crack. The Spurs are a good defensive team against the 3-point shot and will have a huge edge on the boards in this series. Those 2nd chance points and one-and-out possessions for Phoenix should give San Antonio the edge in a close series. It seems the Suns are still missing someone to get all the way. They don’t have enough playmakers and defenders. They could get them next year, as they somehow have 3 1st round picks in what could be one of the deepest drafts in NBA history. They have the 4th most ping pong balls in that machine come lottery time. It’s a scary thought, but there’s a solid shot the missing piece the Suns pick up is Kevin Durant.
The Spurs take it in 6.
Western Conference Finals
(3) San Antonio Spurs v. (1) Dallas Mavericks
The inevitable series. Last time it went to OT in game 7 and there’s no reason not to believe it could happen again. The Mavericks are improved from a year ago on defense and that could put them back in the finals. The Mavs and Spurs are both deep, but the Mavs have depth at just about every position. They have the players to guard Ginobili and Parker, while the Spurs will struggle to contain Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse. Duncan will work harder for his points then Dirk Nowitzki, who has figured out he can drive against Bruce Bowen. Dallas can out-San Antonio the Spurs because they are a better rebounding team and have more players to step up. They don’t need the same guy to have back-to-back big games to pull out a series. The Spurs can’t say that. When the Spurs were just as good as the Mavs they were pushed to the limit. This time around, the Mavs have an edge in depth and athleticism. The Spurs are mostly the same as last year and have a couple of players who haven’t lived up to expectations this year. The Mavs are playing beyond themselves as a team. The Spurs push them to 7 because it has to be like this, and then the Mavs take the series.
The Mavs return to the Promised Land in 7 games.
The NBA Finals
Detroit Pistons v. Dallas Mavericks
The two top seeds make the finals after all. The best starting 5 in all of basketball against the best team. Will C-Webb finally win the big one? He will go a long way to deciding it. He is the one player who will always be at an advantage whenever he is on the floor. He can stretch the floor against Diop or Dampier. If he can knock down mid-range jumpers, it will open up the whole floor for the Pistons offense. If he chokes, the Pistons will crumble. Nowitzki will be a tough guard for anyone on Detroit. The Pistons backcourt will play well whenever Stackhouse isn’t on the floor. Devin Harris will have his hands full with Rip, who may even go into the post against Harris. Terry can’t guard Billups. Tayshaun Prince is a great defender, but will have his hands full with Josh Howard.
The key in this series will be Rasheed Wallace. If he can guard Dirk and score at the other end, the Pistons have a shot. In the end though, the Mavs have too much. The Pistons will wear down during the course of the series and the Mavs will slowly take control. In a battle of a series the Mavs take it in 6.
This time Dallas takes what they should’ve had last year. And David Hasselhoff is blaring all across Germany.